Whatever happened to the serial comic strips? Used to be a time when the newspaper was filled with comic strips that had stories that continued from one day to the next just like a soap opera. And even those comic strips that weren’t serial by nature could be counted upon to offer extended storylines over the course of a week or two. Serial comic strips must have seemed like inky gold to network TV executives in the early days searching for properties that could take advantage of the new medium while bringing in a built-in audience. And so they were.
Steve Canyon started out as a sort of Indiana Jones figure who was always getting into exciting adventures. The breakout of the Korean War brought Steve back into the military and transformed him into one of the most patriotic and jingoistic of comic strip heroes ever. It was in his role as a military figure that “Steve Canyon” came to television in 1958. Specifically, Steve was a pilot in the Air Force by training and a sort of chief cook and bottle washer for solving international intrigue by necessity. About midway through the show’s run, Steven Canyon became the CO at Big Thunder Air Force Base, but he certainly didn’t let that stop him from solving problems all around the world.
Dick Tracy was a natural for the early days of television when crime dramas proliferated. In addition to his long-term success in the comic strips of newspapers across the country, Dick Tracy had enjoyed success in a series of low-budget big screen offerings, one of which even featured Boris Karloff as the villain known as Gruesome. In fact, the Dick Tracy of the TV series was one of the actors who brought the detective to life on the big screen. The show abruptly came to an end in 1951 due to the death of that actor, Ralph Byrd, as the result of a heart attack.
Like “Dick Tracy” the comic strip “Blondie” was first adapted into a series of successful movies before making the transition to TV. That transition was actually tried twice. The first “Blondie” TV series aired in 1957 actually featured the actor who made the role of Dagwood Bumstead forever his in the movie series, Arthur Lake. Another attempt with a completely different cast that included Jim Backus as Dagwood’s boss Mr. Dithers aired about a decade later in 1968. Neither version managed to last past its first season.
Dennis the Menace
Amazingly, the TV show based on the comic strip “Dennis the Menace” managed to stay on the air longer than “Twin Peaks” and “Bosom Buddies” combined. The reasons this longevity is amazing as many. For one thing, “Dennis the Menace” was a one-note joke as a comic strip. For another, Dennis was about as menacing as Opie Taylor. Then there was the fact that Dennis was played by perhaps the most intensely unpleasant child actor in the history of TV, Jay North.
The Addams Family
Not only was “The Addams Family” not a serial comic strip, it didn’t even tell a tiny little story in four panels. “The Addams Family” was a one-panel comic strip like “The Far Side” which is just one of the reasons why it may forever be one of the most unlikely properties to ever be adapted into a hit TV show. Another reason was its bizarre characters and content which would not be such a big deal today, but most certainly must have seemed like a big risk in mid-60s. Then there is the fact that most of “The Addams Family” comic strips were featured in the upscale New Yorker magazine rather than in a daily newspaper. As if all that weren’t enough to work against this comic strip ever becoming a TV show, there was the fact that none Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Pugsley and Wednesday didn’t even exist in the comic strip version. That is to say that the characters existed, of course, but they were all unnamed in the comic. It was only when they made it to TV that they became known by those now strangely familiar first names.
Not one, but two different TV series was based on comic strip legend Buck Rogers. The first appeared on ABC in 1950. In addition to the difficulties of trying to make a science fiction TV show on a very low budget, this “Buck Rogers” had Buck Rogers problems. Namely, two different actors played the role of Buck despite the series lasting less than a year. A third actor played Buck in the original pilot in which Oscar-winner Eva Marie Saint originated the role of Wilma Deering. Nearly thirty years later, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” had a bigger budget thanks to the success of “Star Wars” and made do with just one Buck although there were two different actors providing the voice for Twiki, a robot almost as unpleasant as Jay North’s Dennis the Menace.